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Charlene Li on Flaming Laptops, Sleeping Technicians, and the Streisand Effect

Fast Interview: The author talks about why power is shifting from companies to people and why trying to stop it is like "trying to take pee out of a pool."

Good morning, boss. Here's the situation: Bloggers are circulating photos of one of our products bursting into flames. A video of one of our service personnel sleeping on the job is becoming a smash hit on YouTube. And remember that cease-and-desist order we sent last week? Well, somebody posted it on the Internet, and it's gotten more hits than any of our marketing campaigns. Welcome to the brave new world of the social Web, says Charlene Li, an analyst with Forrester Research. In her new book, Groundswell, Li and co-author Josh Bernoff describe how the world has been transformed by social technologies and how companies can cope with an atmosphere where they no longer control their own brands. In this interview, Li explains why companies might want to hire some good bloggers, why sending in the flaks and lawyers isn't such a good tactic anymore (are you listening, Barbra Streisand?), and why at the end of the day companies should think people, not technology.

What do you mean by the term groundswell?

A groundswell is this social trend that's happening because people have social technology in their hands and they can connect with each other and get the things they need from each other rather than from companies and institutions. Companies are feeling out of control because people have this power.

So imagine you're the CEO of a company and your brand is getting beat up by people posting embarrassing videos. What do you do?

Hopefully, before it's even done that you know what people are saying about your brand. Let's say it's Comcast and your technician has fallen asleep on someone's couch what do you do? You get out there and put out a rebuttal: This is not acceptable. I recently did a Google search on Comcast and that video was number eight. It has lasting impact. When bad things happen like that, there's only so much you can do to contain it. Could they have done some parody of it? Who knows. But the thing they could not do is turn it off. The first thing a CEO wants to know is, how do I get that off YouTube? How do I send them a cease and desist order? You can't.

What's an example of a company that responded effectively to one of these crises?

What Dell did with their laptops catching on fire. They launched their blog right after that. Initially they were not talking about it, but then they came out with a blog post that said simply "flaming notebook." They talked about the fact they were aware of it, were checking into it, and linked to pictures of it catching on fire. It wasn't like they could sweep it under the rug and ignore it. So they said, "Let's deal with this head on." They went on to manage that whole battery recall process through the blog.

What's a good example of somebody that screwed up their response?

In the book, we talk about Barbra Streisand and her house. There was a couple that was photographing the California coast. They put up all the pictures and one of them happened to have Barbra Streisand's house. Her lawyer sent a cease and desist letter saying take it down. So they put that letter up and the letter went all over the place. Now more people know about her house and can see pictures of it than if she had just let it alone. It's called the "Streisand Effect." It's akin to trying to take pee out of the swimming pool.

In engaging the groundswell, you urge companies to follow four stages in the acronym POST: People, Objectives, Strategy, and Technology. In other words, people first, technology last. Do many companies get this backwards?

They absolutely do. Companies will come to us and say, "We need a blog." Ok, great. Why do you want a blog? They go, "Well, our competition has a blog. Or my CEO wants a blog." It's rarely with a good understanding of what kind of relationship they want to build with the people they're trying to reach. Focus on the relationship first.

And maybe they find out they don't really need a blog.

Yeah, it happens all the time. I have one great example where somebody came in and said, "We really want to support our customers and want to have a blog." As they talked about this, I said, "you don't need a blog, you need a good old fashioned discussion forum." The most overlooked tool in the Web 2.0 arsenal is the discussion forum.

When summarizing how to respond to the groundswell, you say that the point is not necessarily what to do but how to be. What's the distinction?

What do you stand for? That is the foundation of any relationship. If you don't have a good sense of who you are, it's hard for people to have a relationship with you.

How will social networking look five years from now?

Instead of going to a certain place like Facebook or MySpace to be social with your friends, your friends will go to wherever you need them to be. If I'm reading a book review on Amazon, I'll be able to see my friends' reviews — even if those reviews are written on a blog someplace else. There will definitely be platforms, but the key thing is they won't be walled gardens.

How are existing business models falling short when it comes to marketing in this new world?

Most people, when they go into these social networking channels, think of it as another marketing channel. They treat it as, "Okay, here's another place we can put banner ads to drive people to our site" rather than saying, "How can I build virality into this?" They're not personal conversations. When somebody reaches out to you personally, you're much more likely to engage, to internalize the brand and therefore become a spokesperson for it.

How do you make that personal connection when there are literally millions of people out there?

You can use viral videos on Facebook. It could be like what Ernst & Young, the accounting firm, is doing on Facebook. They're recruiting students on college campuses, so Facebook is a natural place for them to be. They send out advertisements targeting various campuses and encouraging students to come to the site. There's a discussion board and a lot of comments on the wall. They can ask a question and somebody from E&Y answers them. The people doing it are the top people who run North American recruitment for Ernst & Young. That's very personal.

Where do you see groundswell going in the years ahead?

Social networks will be like air. The groundswell will be anywhere and everywhere you want it to be — even in places you don't want it to be as a marketer in your company. The message we want to get across is that the groundswell is inevitable. You can ignore it at your own peril. You can acknowledge it and play nicely with it. Or you can choose to thrive in it. Companies who can put aside their fear of losing control and tap into the power of that groundswell will really benefit from it.

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  • Karrie Sullivan

    While basic the article hits on some good points that most companies are trying to figure out right now. The message about how social media will affect how companies go to market hasn't gotten through yet (otherwise IT would be working on how to mitigate risk and leadership wouldn't see social sites as time wasters).

    Social media will radically cange the roles PR, corporate communications, marketing, and advertising play in companies. Everyone will be recruited into marketing and marketers will be called upon to integrate with non traditional disciplines as engineering and manufacturing to help them deal with communications challenges posed by doing business in a social media world.

  • Makio Yamazaki

    'Professional Socail Skill'(not technologies) would be more and more important than ever before, I mean.

  • alice yoo

    I totally agree with this Charlene on this - companies need to understand that a paradigm shift is happening and if they don't try to open themselves up to people they'll only come out looking worse.

    I am an ambassador for and wrote a story about this -

    I also have a public blog where I enjoy talking about these kinds of things (among other things):

  • Michael Daehn

    Good read- if you are in marketing or technology you should pick it up.

  • Jay Tatum

    This is a curious article on over-stating the obvious and it comes across to me as one of those, "I told you so," kinds of posts. I haven't read the book, I'm just reading the interview and I am not all that impressed! I don't think it is particularly well written or that the questions really probe the author crtically enough about what she is trying to say in her book. I mean, I get it that her book is about the transformation happening to businesses with social networking (as if this is new!)as the traditional tools used in business are no longer effective, but for me, I would have liked to have asked those three basic questons about the book:
    First, "What question is the author asking?"
    Second,"What answer does the author give?"
    Third, "What are its implications?"
    Yeah, these kind of qot asked and they kind of got answered and there may be some implications to examine. So what? My hesitation in now reading the book is that she is telling us what she's going to tell us and but we already know it.
    I would rather engage the author in conversation and ask some questions about her research, how this confirms or denies the assumptions from "The Cluetrain Manifesto," and given the subject matter of the book, will it invite me to explore the topic more or will it be more "I told you so"?

  • Carel Two-Eagle

    The central message is "Power to the people!" A concept when Europeans first came here to Turtle Island, an ongoing thread in all ITI cultures, then in the 1970's when it became a majority-culture slogan; those who claimed to be 'in control' or 'in power' tried to bury it deep. We ITI know this for fact - our holocaust is still going on. But like anything vital to life, the concept just kept resurfaciing; and now with the Internet, it appears we the people have a real chance at making it live in our lives once again - ITI and non-ITI alike. Finally. All we must do is take hold of it and not let go.

  • Howard Poon

    I've just started reading Charlene's book, Groundswell. If the first few chapters are an indicator, it's a excellent read – written in plain-language and packed with relevant examples to support the the core content.

  • David Damore

    If you want to hear more great stuff from Charlene and two other amazing women [Sarah Lacy and Tara Hunt].
    Check out their podcast/radio show/conference calls.

    Not sure when the next call is but you can listen to the first two at the link above.